Handre Pollard’s knee injury will place a spotlight on the Springboks’ flyhalf depth as they build towards the 2021 British & Irish Lions series, writes DYLAN JACK.
It was confirmed on Monday that Pollard had torn the anterior cruciate ligaments in his knee while playing for Montpellier last Friday. It is the second time that Pollard has ruptured his ligaments, suffering a similar injury during a training session with the Vodacom Bulls in 2016. Then, he was forced to miss around nine months of action.
The injury could place both Pollard and Springboks in a compromising position. ACL injuries generally have a recovery period of between six and nine months, depending on the severity of the tear. At best, Pollard is looking at returning to the field only by the end of March 2021.
The British & Irish Lions series starts on 3 July, with the first Test against the Springboks scheduled for 24 July. One would assume that the Boks would assemble a month before the entire series begins to allow for enough preparation time.
Pollard has played just two games since the lockdown, as the 2019-20 Top 14 season was cancelled and the 2020-21 season has only recently begun. If Pollard returns around March in what may be a best-case scenario, there are eight Top 14 rounds between the beginning of March and the beginning of June, which would mean that he could depart for the Springboks’ squad having only played around 10 matches in over a year’s worth of time.
With the depth in terms of talent that the Springboks have at flyhalf, Pollard would need to quickly regain fitness and form to retain his place in the starting lineup.
In the short term, Pollard’s injury could work as an opportunity for the Springboks. If the team is to participate in the upcoming Rugby Championship in November, it would give coach Jacques Nienaber a chance to blood some of the younger players, such as Damian Willemse and Curwin Bosch, while also allowing Elton Jantjies a solid run of starting Tests for the first time since 2017.
With 37 Test caps to his name, Jantjies is the next most experienced flyhalf the Springboks have at their disposal. However, his on-field game time under the new coaching staff has been sporadic.
In 2017, Jantjies had his best run in a Springbok shirt, starting 10 consecutive matches. However, in 2018 and 2019, he never started two consecutive Test matches.
This is not to say that the 30-year-old Lions captain doesn’t have something to offer the Springboks, it only serves to point out that a more mature player could now have a good opportunity to prove himself as a starting option.
Jantjies’ strengths revolve around his ability to put his teammates into space and manipulate a defence through his decision-making. There are very few South African flyhalves who can match Jantjies’ expertise at consistently picking the right pass or playing off the cuff.
What the Springboks will be missing in Pollard is essentially pure physicality. At 96kg, Pollard is big for a flyhalf and this allows him to take the ball to the gainline and keep an opposition defence on its toes. Obviously, this also allows him to cope a lot easier with a rush defence, something which is commonly employed in Test rugby.
Because of Jantjies’ propensity to look for time and space, this means he tends to play a bit deeper than Pollard, making him more susceptible to a rush defence.
Think of how the Springboks employed Pieter-Steph du Toit, their best defensive player, to man-mark and rush up on England’s George Ford – a similar player to Jantjies in many respects – during the 2019 World Cup final. This is the conundrum Nienaber would have to solve in backing Jantjies to start.
The Springboks do have a more like-for-like replacement for Pollard in Willemse, who possesses a similar build and physicality, but is also incredibly skilful and agile.
However, Willemse is only just starting to find his feet as a flyhalf at franchise level, having spent most of the early parts of his career shifted at fullback. There are still areas of his game that need to be nurtured, especially in terms of his tactical kicking and decision- making.
Then there is Bosch, who has simply been superb for the Sharks this season after being backed at flyhalf by coach Sean Everitt, who has also implemented systems which get the best out of the 23-year-old. Bosch has thrived as the Sharks have empowered their players to play more according to the situation and less according to a set gameplan.
Bosch and Willemse, as well as Jantjies, would hopefully also benefit from the way in which rugby is currently being refereed, with greater emphasis on speeding the game up by enforcing the offsides line and breakdown laws, allowing for quick ball from rucks.
However, Nienaber would still need to adjust the Springboks’ gameplan to get the best of the remaining flyhalves. In the long term, there should be real concern over Pollard’s readiness for the British & Irish Lions tour, a series which is uncompromising in exploiting weaknesses.
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